Ponniyin Selvan 2 actor Jayaram talks about working with Mani Ratnam and what to expect from the second instalment
For Malayalam star Jayaram, acting in Ponniyin Selvan is special for several reasons. Firstly, it gave him an opportunity to work with legendary filmmaker Mani Ratnam, but what he holds dear is that it offered a chance to be part of a story that he grew up listening to from his mother.
This is probably also why his excitement to be part of the filmmaker’s two-part movie hasn’t doused a single bit ever since he began working on it. With Ponniyin Selvan 2 set to release on April 28 in theatres, OTTplay caught up with Jayaram, who plays Azhwarkadiyan Nambi in the movie, in an exclusive interview, to know about his experience and what to expect from the upcoming movie.
Despite it being almost four years since the film went on floors, your delight to be associated with Mani Ratnam’s magnum opus is still very much intact.
The story of Ponniyin Selvan is tied to the history of Tamil Nadu. My character Azhwarkadiyan Nambi looks like a simple Brahmin with his walking stick, but is an ingenious spy who reports everything that’s happening immediately to the Prime Minister. There’s a lot about Nambi in the book and when I had signed the movie, the first thing a lot of people asked me was, ‘Who is playing Nambi?’ So, that’s where all the thrill comes from. Also, I have grown up hearing stories of Ponniyin Selvan from my mother. Obviously when a book of 2,500 pages is adapted into two films of just two and half hours of duration, every character and their portions are trimmed.
Both movies were shot simultaneously, did that make the job easier – especially when it’s a huge project like this.
There was a clear plan on where each part of the film would be shot when we first set out. We started shooting in Thailand and finished an important schedule there, but after that we had planned schedules in Sri Lanka, Rajasthan and Kerala. Just when we started with those portions, was when the pandemic struck. It became increasingly difficult to get a lot of locations then. For six months, everything had come to a standstill and there was a sense of nervousness because you don’t expect to start such a big movie and then halt midway due to circumstances that are out of your control.
But this was a project where I truly witnessed seamless coordination between the artistes and the technicians. It was during the peak of the pandemic and Mani sir asked all of us if we were ready to shoot. It was unanimous; we said, ‘Come what may, we are with you’. Every day, we had at least 1,000 junior artistes on the sets of the movie and we could never know if anyone was infected. There was no way to wear a mask during the shoot because this was a period film. We prayed and went ahead; all of this was because we believed in Mani Ratnam sir.
You have worked with some of the stalwarts in Malayalam film industry including Padmarajan and Bharathan. What about Mani Ratnam has stood out for you?
The biggest task, when it comes to Ponniyin Selvan, was to make two movies out of a text that spanned 2,500 pages. So, you had to decide what to retain and what to leave out. I believe Mani sir must have been contemplating this for about 40 years before he began work on this.
In terms of executing a movie, I haven’t seen a better director than him in my life. His commitment to the project is unmatched and he’s meticulous. I don’t think for any other filmmaker, the entire team of a movie would have been on the same page. All of us had wake-up calls at 3am in Thailand. Most of the people who were working on the production side were from that country. By 3.15am, the make-up team would come to get my hair fixed. By the time I am done and I come down, Karthi, Vikram, Jayam Ravi – all of them will be ready and by 3.30am, we would get in the car and by 4.30am, we would reach the sets, which would have hundreds of caravans. There would be a buzz, where people are getting ready and having breakfast; there were separate counters for Indian and Thai food. By 5.45am, everybody would be assembled at the site for the day’s first scene and people would be going through their dialogues again and again, despite having rehearsed it the previous day. If there’s any doubt, they would get it cleared from Mani sir. At 6am, he will go for the first shot.
Was there a discussion as to why he decided to entrust you with the character of Azhwarkadiyan Nambi?
I went to his office and he told me in detail about the character. After that he showed the mini model of the mapped kingdom and explained to me the story. That’s when I asked him, why me and then he showed me a photo of my tonsured look from Ramesh Pisharody’s Panchavarna Thata. The team took that photo and superimposed it with various elements to make it look like Azhwarkadiyan Nambi. Initially, there was another look with the stick, but this get-up looked better.
It’s also not like he chose people randomly. Mani sir mulled over the casting for several years and got caricatures drawn with different actors. Every actor resembled the paintings of the characters drawn by (Ponniyin Selvan) writer Kalki Krishnamurthy, be it Lal sir and Rahman’s characters or mine. My character might be shorter than what’s mentioned in the book, but in terms of looks, it matches.
In the book, Azhwarkadiyan Nambi’s character has an array of personality traits. The first part, however, mostly focuses on his companionship with Karthi’s Vandiyathevan. Will Ponniyin Selvan: II explore aspects about him?
Actually, Nambi has another face – filled with rage. During the fight sequence in the first film where the chariot carrying Ponniyin Selvan, Vandiyathevan and Nambi falls into the river, he unsheathes a sword and unleashes his fury. We had shot the entire sequence, but it was edited out.
In the second movie, Nambi’s character will assume more prominence. The first movie ends with Ponniyin Selvan falling into the sea. Nambi’s character is responsible for him and also for ensuring the news of what happens to him reaches every corner of the kingdom. Also, the movie will focus on if Ponniyin Selvan returns with Vandiyathevan, if he and Aditha Karikalan would meet and what Nandini’s plans are. All of these crucial sequences will make Ponniyin Selvan: II even more engaging.